Chapter 2: The Princess
King Basir of Marakh, who called himself “the Blessed,” was a man who worried. He was a short, plump man. Years of ruling Marakh had turned his hair prematurely gray and furrowed his wide forehead. His balding head could be hidden beneath his turban, but his gray beard, which grew in uneven patches on his face, was visible for all the world to see. The doctors told him its irregular growth was due to his constant worrying—but rather than setting his mind at ease, that only made him worry more that his appearance was less than regal and his subjects would not respect him.
King Basir wanted to be a great monarch. He wanted his people to love and respect him. He wanted his enemies to fear and respect him. He wanted his allies merely to respect him. But inspiring those emotions in others was never easy. There were so many decisions to be made all the time, and he was never sure what the right answers were. If he ruled harshly he was called a tyrant; if he showed mercy he was labeled weak. Worst of all, if he tried to take some middle position he was accused of being indecisive and everyone ended up despising him.
He knew what a good king, a strong king, should be. He grew up with a living example. His father, King Alnath, was universally regarded as a powerful monarch. It was King Alnath who expanded Marakh’s hegemony south and west across the Shiraz Plains, and east well into neighboring Formistan. King Alnath was a feared warrior and a stern ruler who’d commanded respect from friend and foe alike. Even now, with King Alnath dead these past twenty-seven years, the neighboring lands still respected the power of Marakh even though King Basir had added nothing to the kingdom since taking the throne. Thus does a good reputation stand its holders in good stead long after its basis has vanished.
King Alnath tried to instill in his son the lessons of power. He would hold mock councils in which young Prince Basir had to make decisions of state. Every time the prince made the wrong decision, King Alnath would publicly mock him before his wazirs. Often the prince was beaten as well. In this way did King Alnath seek to ensure that his successor would be a man who thought carefully and made no bad decisions. His son, he vowed, would be an even better king than he was, because he would have learned from his father’s mistakes.
It was with these high expectations of him that King Basir ascended to the throne of Marakh. But with his father always held up to him as an example of what a king should be, Basir knew he could never be strong enough, never be wise enough, never be brave enough to meet those demanding standards. He also knew he never dared admit those self-doubts publicly. Each decision, however small, was an agony to him, until he worked himself into such a state that his stomach was in constant pain and he could eat only the blandest of foods.
As a further disappointment in his life he produced four daughters, but no sons. He was certain, somehow, that the fault lay with him, that he was not strong enough to sire sons, and out of guilt he lavished attention on the princesses—and particularly on Oma, his oldest daughter.
From an early age she had the finest tutors and was given the best education any woman could expect. She could read and write, and she debated well with the best scholars in the land. She played backgammon and chess, danced with a grace to make gazelles jealous, and composed poetry of beauty and perception. She sang with a voice to rival the nightingale, and played excellently upon the lute, flute, and drum. To top it all off, she was a pearl of matchless beauty, a girl of such exquisite features and pale white skin, of long black hair and large black eyes, of delicate figure and pleasing speech, that all who saw or heard her fell instantly in love.
Little wonder she became the prize of King Basir’s otherwise harried life. He could deny her nothing. If he even tried to say no to her, she would pout and call him a failure as a father, and that would remind him of his many failures as a king. He would feel guilty for being so unreasonable, and always he would relent and give Princess Oma exactly what she wanted, no matter how exorbitant the price.
On one point alone did King Basir remain resolved against his daughter. Knowing that he might never have a male heir and wanting to secure the best marriage for her and his kingdom, he made a contract when she was just a girl to wed her to the equally young Prince Ahmad of Ravan. Princess Oma cried and screamed and pouted that she was being treated like a slave, and that she would never marry a man she’d never met and didn’t love, but on this matter the king remained adamant. The future of the kingdom must be assured to prevent chaos after King Basir’s death, and an alliance with Ravan would solidify Marakh’s stature among the world’s nations.
Yet even on this important matter King Basir could not remain constant. After the death of King Shunnar of Ravan, Shunnar’s widow, Shammara, sent King Basir the gift of a lovely and enticing concubine named Rabah, who worked unstintingly to convince the king that Shammara’s son, Prince Haroun—rather than Prince Ahmad, son of a concubine—would be the better marriage choice. Rabah became intimate friends with the young Princess Oma and tried to convince her of Haroun’s desirability as well. At the same time one of the king’s most trusted advisers, Tabib abu Saar, was also subverted to Shammara’s cause and began counseling King Basir to betray his solemn contract regarding Prince Ahmad. Against pressure from all these sides, King Basir’s resolve, never strong to begin with, could not stand up, and he agreed to betray the prince and wed his precious Oma to Prince Haroun instead.
Thus, with Shammara’s aid, was the plan devised to lure Prince Ahmad out of Ravan by insisting he travel to Marakh to wed his bride. In a forest along the road, King Basir stationed two hundred of his best soldiers, outnumbering the wedding party by four to one. Once Ahmad was dead, Princess Oma could marry Prince Haroun and the two lands would be united as had always been the plan, with just a slight change of names in the leading roles.
But it was now several days after the ambush was supposed to occur, and King Basir had received no word from his men. His captain in the field had been given strict instructions to send a messenger back to Marakh on their fastest horse to bring the news of the mission’s success. Even a failure should have merited some word, though that was unlikely considering the relative size of the two forces involved. But days passed and no word came. King Basir worried and the fire in his stomach flamed like a blacksmith’s furnace.
All sorts of horrible contingencies raced through his mind. Prince Ahmad could have defeated the ambush, returned to Ravan, killed Shammara, and even now be assembling an army to march in revenge against Marakh. Or Shammara could have double -crossed both sides to play out a subtle game of her own design. Scores of alternatives, each of them disastrous, danced through King Basir’s mind, haunting his sleep and ruining his digestion. He considered sending out spies, but was too afraid of what they might find.
After a week and a half, the two retainers who’d gone to Ravan with Tabib abu Saar as King Basir’s legation returned to Marakh via a most circuitous route. They were taken immediately before the king, where it was obvious they were frightened out of their wits—not by being in the king’s presence, but by what had happened to them upon the road. Under stern questioning by the king and his wazirs, they told their eerie tale.
At first, they said, all had gone as planned. The prince’s party had walked into the ambush unprepared for battle. Tabib abu Saar and his retainers retreated from the scene the instant the fighting started and watched the skirmish from a safe distance down the road. The Marakhi soldiers far outnumbered Prince Ahmad’s troops, and the battle was going well when suddenly a supernatural manifestation appeared.
An enormous black whirlwind arose from nowhere, towering above the treetops, and from it streaked bolts of lightning that struck the Marakhi warriors and burned them instantly like so many lumps of coal. The whirlwind did not harm the prince’s men, and abu Saar’s retainers speculated the prince must have had strong magic on his side to defeat the opposing force.
So fearsome was the whirlwind that abu Saar’s horse reared in terror, spilling the Marakhi ambassador on the hard ground and breaking both his legs. The servants’ asses were braver, but still would not approach the whirlwind, and the servants were afraid to dismount and help their master, lest the asses run off and leave them stranded in the forest.
Then the whirlwind transformed itself into a giant rukh, grabbed one of the prince’s soldiers, and flew off into the sky. The retainers didn’t know what to make of that, but thought perhaps the soldier might have been a sacrifice by the prince to the evil powers he’d summoned to defeat the ambushers.
Abu Saar had lain on the ground in pain, pleading with his servants to help him, but they were afraid and didn’t know how. When some of the prince’s men came looking for them, they turned and fled, taking a long and devious route back to their native city to avoid being followed and captured. They knew nothing more of what had happened to Tabib abu Saar and Prince Ahmad’s party.
This news sent the king into profound fits of anxiety, and he pulled out even more of his sparse beard. Shammara would be awaiting word from him about the success of his raid. Though he had never met the woman, her reputation was that she was not a person to cross casually. Even though the ambush’s failure was due to supernatural intervention and was no fault of King Basir’s, Shammara might well take strong action that was bound to be unpleasant. She was even rumored to have connections with the rimahniya, the secret religious cult of fanatical assassins. King Basir did not wish to die from one of their poisoned daggers stuck between his ribs.
With his stomach aflame he dismissed the gibbering servants and discussed the matter with his wazirs. He thoroughly regretted letting himself be talked into betraying his contract with Prince Ahmad, but nothing could rectify that now. He had to evaluate the situation given but the flimsiest of evidence and make new plans based on events as he understood them.
They had to assume Tabib abu Saar was captured and questioned by Prince Ahmad. With both legs broken he would not put up much resistance under interrogation, and thus would tell Prince Ahmad all about the secret alliance between Shammara and King Basir. The prince was known as a well-trained, but inexperienced, fighter, and it was conceivable that his anger at the betrayal would lead him to take some action against Marakh.
“Is it too late to apologize to him and offer him help against Shammara?” King Basir asked.
“Do you think he’d believe it after what happened?” his first wazir countered.
“No, no, I guess not,” the king said weakly.
“Besides, Your Majesty, Prince Ahmad has but a handful of men. Marakh has one of the strongest armies in all Parsina. Any fight against us would mean his certain death.”
“But he obviously has some powerful sorcerer working for him. That whirlwind—the rukh—”
“All the more reason to maintain your strong alliance with Shammara. We’ll need help from the Holy City if we face a threat from magic.”
“Shammara!” King Basir went suddenly cold at the thought of his powerful ally. “What will I do about her? What will I tell her? How can I explain…?”
“You will explain nothing,” the wazir said. “Are you not king of Marakh, ruler of the two rivers? A king need explain to no one. You will send her a message saying that, as agreed upon, your army attacked the prince’s party on the road and prevented them from reaching Marakh. You will prepare Princess Oma’s bridal party as quickly as possible and send her off to Ravan to marry Prince Haroun and further cement the alliance between Marakh and Ravan. When all is completed, how can Shammara complain?”